Traverse City News and Events

How NMC's Newest Degree Could Help Shape Water Cleanup Projects In Michigan And Beyond

By Craig Manning | Nov. 26, 2022

A brand-new degree program is coming to Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) next fall, and it could bring Traverse City one step closer to becoming a global hub for freshwater expertise. The program, an associate of applied science (AAS) in water quality environmental technology, will exist within NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute. Per Water Studies Institute Director Hans VanSumeren, the degree “will focus on training a workforce supporting the direct monitoring and cleanup of waters within the Great Lakes watershed and focusing on the direct impact to the quality of our water resources.” The NMC Board of Trustees approved the program at its meeting last Monday and is targeting a fall 2023 start date for the degree offering.

Currently, the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute boasts both an AAS and a bachelor of science in marine technology, as well as an AAS in freshwater studies. According to VanSumeren, though, the idea of adding another degree category to the department – one focused on water quality monitoring and remediation – has actually been in the works for quite some time.

“This degree was actually something that I looked at when I first started at the College in 2008,” VanSumeren says. “The are all kinds of opportunities out there for environmental cleanup, for brownfield redevelopment, for cleaning up contaminated areas and developing them into something new. The Grand Traverse Commons is a perfect example of how powerful that work can be for a community.”

In researching the world of water quality testing and site remediation, VanSumeren made a surprising discovery: There were basically zero programs out there designed to equip students with the skills and technical expertise necessary to do that work. And yet, at the same time, he saw that there was incredible demand for professionals in the remediation industry – especially in Michigan, given the state’s goldmine of freshwater resources.

“It’s not a small industry,” VanSumeren says of contamination cleanup, citing an EPA estimate which puts the value of the industry at $200 billion over the next 30 years, stemming from the potential cleanup of approximately 294,000 waste sites across the country. “[Contamination] is something that exists in every state in the country and in every county in Michigan, largely because of the way our industrial legacies have sometimes left things in the ground – and particularly in water – that we have to remediate or get rid of. In Michigan, for instance, we often say the Great Lakes are Michigan's front door to development. Those shoreline areas were historically where we saw most of the industry, due to the dynamics of waterborne transport and the needs for being close to water. And so that's where we see a lot of these cleanups. Think of Marquette and what’s happened with the harbor there over the past 20 years, or the Detroit waterfront, or even in Traverse City with Hotel Indigo.”

While many Michigan sites have already been remediated and redeveloped – particularly along the coast – VanSumeren says there are still innumerable spots that have yet to get the treatment. “These types of projects are going to continue to ramp up,” he assures. “Sensors are getting better at understanding where there are potential hazards that need to be remediated, which means companies are going to be doing more work [in the remediation space]. One of the only hindrances to winning those bids is going to be having a competent workforce.”

The new water quality environmental technology degree at NMC is designed to meet that growing industry need. In a memo about the program included in the packet for last Monday’s NMC Board of Trustees meeting, VanSumeren wrote that the degree will be “the only program focusing on supporting this industry need in the state of Michigan.”

To create the new degree, VanSumeren “dusted off” what he had written about the concept back in 2008 and updated it to reflect the current status of the industry. The program will incorporate numerous courses that already exist at NMC, including credit requirements in biology, geology, chemistry, geographic information systems, surveying, and unmanned aerial systems. It will also create several brand-new courses, including classes focused on water quality, site assessment and remediation, groundwater monitoring and aquifer sampling, and Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) – the standard regulation of hazardous waste operations specified by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

VanSumeren also consulted with industry experts to get a better sense of what the new water quality environmental technology degree should incorporate, including Russell Schindler, CEO and founder of local environmental sample collection company SampleServe; and Andy Smits, Grand Traverse County’s drain commissioner. Both experts, VanSumeren says, have been “part of this industry for decades” and were able to share insight on everything from brownfield redevelopment to field operations. In the case of Schindler, VanSumeren says SampleServe will even be donating its software for students of the NMC program to use, “knowing that people with this software training can then advocate for its use in the industry.”

With the new degree now approved by the NMC board, VanSumeren says the next step is “to have a big marketing campaign” that will spotlight the program to employers and potential students throughout the state. While promoting the degree to an inaugural class of students is the immediate priority, though, VanSumeren and other players in the local “Blue Economy” are already thinking about how this new program could advance Traverse City’s status as a growing hub for all things water. The crown jewel of that vision is the Freshwater Research Innovation Center, which would transform Discover Pier into a multifaceted epicenter of research, technology, education, entrepreneurship, and business – a vision VanSumeren thinks is one step closer to reality thanks to NMC’s decision to bring this degree online.

“This program is just another component of our strength in the new Blue Economy,” VanSumeren concludes. “If the Freshwater Research Innovation Center comes to fruition, there are going to be companies that are going to be incubated within that space that will be dealing with new sensor technologies to serve these remediation industries. And the idea is that our workforce could then be co-trained at the time of these developments, and then they’re using the latest greatest and they're bringing these new products directly into their training and then into their work. It's an idea that not only allows our students to be highly trained, but it also provides avenues for those businesses to reach the companies that would then be using their products. And that could really mean a lot for Traverse City.”

Photo courtesy of SampleServe

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